Women took to the skies even before the airplane was invented. And once those planes were available, there was no shortage of people wanting to learn to fly, including plenty of women who became legends. We saw some of them in the previous article Those Magnificent Ladies in Their Flying Machines. Now let’s meet a few more and hear the stories behind them.
1. Sophie Blanchard
Before Amelia Earhart, before Blanche Stuart Scott, before Pancho Barnes, there was Sophie Blanchard, who took to the air long before there were airplanes. Blanchard was the first woman to fly, and was appointed France’s Chief Air Minister of Ballooning by Napoleon Bonaparte. Born in 1778, she eventually married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a pioneer of early balloon flight. Sophie went up in balloons as well, making her first solo flight in 1805. After her husband died from a heart attack while flying in 1809, Blanchard became a sensational solo act, pushing the boundaries of balloon flight and even laying the foundations for the use of balloons in warfare.
But that came to an end in 1819. During a aeronautic show in which she lit fireworks from the sky, Blanchard’s balloon caught on fire. The balloon dipped, the basket was caught on a roof, and Blanchard tumbled out and to her death on the street below. Yes, she also became the first woman to die from flying, in a spectacular and very public way.
2. Katherine Stinson
Katherine Stinson was born in 1891 and was twelve years old when the Wright Brothers took their first flight. Stinson came up with the idea to become a pilot so she could earn money to study music in Europe. But when she attained her pilot’s license in 1912, the idea of becoming a piano teacher faded away. Stinson became a stunt pilot and was promoted with the title “the Flying Schoolgirl,” because she looked much younger than 21. Stinson was such an enthusiastic pilot that her entire family became involved. She opened an aviation company with her mother, and her siblings all learned to fly. Later, the family opened a flying school in San Antonio, Texas. Meanwhile, Katherine Stinson was setting records. She was the first woman—and only the fourth person—to successfully complete a loop-the-loop. She was the first pilot to fly at night, and the first to perform night skywriting. Stinson also became the first woman to fly in Asia in 1916. She was the first woman commissioned as an air mail pilot. Then World War I began. Stinson volunteered as a pilot, but the U.S. military rejected her because of her sex. Instead she went to Europe to drive an ambulance for the Red Cross. Her experience in Europe left her with tuberculosis, so Stinson retired from stunt piloting to become an architect at the end of the war.
3. Katherine Sui Fun Cheung
In an era in which Chinese women in America kept a low profile, Katherine Sui Fun Cheung stood out, as a child prodigy in music, and later for learning to drive. She was born in Hong Kong in 1904, immigrated to America as a teenager, and defied traditional roles all her life. Cheung agreed to marry George Young only if he supported her wish to fly and let her keep her maiden name. In 1932 she became the first Chinese-American woman to earn a pilot’s license. Cheung wasn’t satisfied with just flying—she became a stunt pilot and performed in air shows. Cheung was an inspiration for the Chinese community in California and encouraged young people to defy stereotypes to make their dreams come true. When the Japanese invaded China, the community raised funds to help her with a plan to transport supplies into China and train pilots there, including buying Cheung a new plane in 1937. But her cousin crashed her new plane and died, and her father fell ill. His dying wish was that Cheung give up flying. After all, Amelia Earhart had disappeared earlier that year. She promised, but still flew for a few more years. She retired from aerial shows in 1942. Cheung received many honors as “the Chinese Amelia Earhart,” and lived to the age of 98. She died in 2003. You can see pictures of Katherine Sui Fun Cheung here, and some comics by Kate Beaton that tell more about her here.
4. Beryl Markham
Born in 1902, Beryl Markham grew up in British East Africa (now Kenya) as the daughter of a British farmer. She married at 17 and became the first female professional horse trainer in Africa at 18. That was just the beginning of an adventurous life that included three marriages, one child, an affair with British royalty, and a lifetime of breaking aviation barriers. Markham became the first professional woman pilot in Africa in 1931. Her career as a bush pilot consisted of flying from remote location to remote location in Africa, over terrain that wasn’t even surveyed yet, delivering mail and medical supplies to far-flung villages, mining towns, and homesteads. Markham’s most-publicized stunt was an attempt to fly from England to New York City in 1932. She made it across the Atlantic, becoming the first woman to do so East-to-West, but icy conditions forced her to land in Nova Scotia instead of New York. Markham wrote a book about the adventure, plus short stories about growing up in Kenya. She returned to training horses in her later years, working with them until her death at age 83.
5. Helen Richey
Helen Richey was the first woman to become an airline pilot. Born in 1909, she was a tomboy who rebelled against her parents’ plan for her to become a teacher. She earned her pilot’s license at age 20, and her father bought her a biplane in honor of the occasion. Richey joined the stunt pilots of the day in performing at aerial shows, and flew in many races. In 1934, a close friend died during a race, and Richey decided to pursue a less dangerous job—that of an airline pilot. Central Airlines hired her, but mainly for publicity purposes. She was not allowed to fly in bad weather, was rejected by the pilot’s union, and spent too much time making public appearances. Richey left that position for a government job, then became the first woman to be certified as a flight instructor. She not only trained pilots, but also trained them to be flight instructors. In the second World War, Richey flew for the British Transport Authority and then in the WASPS (the U.S. Women's Airforce Service Pilots) transporting planes and material. She finished the war with rank of Major. When the war was over, many of the women who worked “men’s jobs” during wartime were let go to open up positions for returning veterans—but only male veterans. Richey was unable to find work flying and fell into a depression. She took her own life on January 7, 1947.
6. Barbara Allen Rainey
Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Allen Rainey was the first woman to become a pilot in the military. The regular military, not just a women’s auxiliary during wartime. Rainey completed officer’s training at the US Navy Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1970. She completed the course at the US Naval Flight Training School in 1974 and became the first female U.S. Naval Aviator. Rainey married a fellow pilot and resigned her commission when she became pregnant with her first daughter in 1977. However, she stayed in the reserve. By 1981, Rainey had two daughters, and was recalled to active duty as a flight instructor. In this operation, she flew the Navy’s T-34C Mentor. During a practice session on touch-and-go landings on July 13, 1982, she was killed in a crash. Rainey is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.